Religion in Sci-Fi

Since its inception as a literary genre, religion has played an important role in science fiction. Whether it took the form of informing the author’s own beliefs, or was delivered as part of their particular brand of social commentary, no work of sci-fi has ever been bereft of spirituality.Even self-professed atheists and materialists had something to say about religion, the soul and the concept of the divine, even if it was merely to deny its existence.

And so, I thought it might make for an interesting conceptual post to see exactly what some of history’s greats believed and how they worked it into their body of literature. As always, I can’t include everybody, but I sure as hell can include anyone who’s books I’ve read and beliefs I’ve come to know. And where ignorance presides, I shall attempt to illuminate myself on the subject. Okay, here goes!

Alastair Reynolds:
Despite being a relative newby to the field of sci-fi authors, Reynolds has established a reputation for hard science and grand ideas with his novels. And while not much information exists on his overall beliefs, be they religious or secular, many indications found their way into his books that would suggest he carries a rather ambiguous view of spirituality.

Within the Revelation Space universe, where most of his writing takes place, there are many mentions of a biotechnological weapon known as the “Indoctrination Virus”. This is an invasive program which essentially converts an individual to any number of sectarian ideologies by permeating their consciousness with visions of God, the Cross, or other religious iconography.

In Chasm City, these viruses are shown to be quite common on the world of Sky’s Edge, where religious sects use them to convert people to the official faith of the planet that claims Sky Haussmann was a prophet who was unfairly crucified for his actions. In Absolution Gap, they also form the basis of a society that populates an alien world known as Hela. Here, a theocratic state was built around a man named Quaiche, who while near death watched the moon’s gas giant disappear for a fraction of a second.

Unsure if this was the result of a strain he carries, he created a mobile community that travels the surface of the planet and watches the gas giant at all times using mirrors and reclining beds, so that they are looking heavenward at all times. Over the years, this community grew and expanded and became a mobile city, with each “believer” taking on transfusions of his blood so they could contract the the strain that converted him and allowed him to witness all that he did.

While this would indicate that Reynolds holds a somewhat dim view of religion, he leaves plenty of room for the opposite take. All throughout his works, the idea of preserving one’s humanity in a universe permeated by post-mortal, post-human, cybernetic beings remains a constant. In addition, as things get increasingly dark and the destruction of our race seems imminent, individual gestures of humanity are seem as capable of redeeming and even saving humanity as a species.

In fact, the names of the original trilogy allude to this: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap. Like with everything else in his books, Reynold’s seems to prefer to take a sort of middling approach, showing humanity as an ambiguous species rather than an inherently noble one or foul one. Religion, since it is a decidedly human practice, can only be seen as ambiguous as well.

Arthur C. Clarke:
At once a great futurist and technologist, Clarke was nevertheless a man who claimed to be endlessly fascinated with the concept of God and transcendence. When interviews on the subjects of his beliefs, he claimed that he was “fascinated by the concept of God.” During another interview, he claimed that he believed that “Any path to knowledge is a path to God—or Reality, whichever word one prefers to use.”

However, these views came to change over time, leading many to wonder what the beliefs of this famed author really were. At once disenchanted with organized religion, he often found himself subscribing to various alternative beliefs systems. At other times, he insisting he was an atheist, and nearing the end of his life, even went so far as to say that he did not want religious ceremonies of any kind at his funeral.

Nowhere were these paradoxical views made more clear than in his work. For example, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the theme of transcendence, of growing to the point of becoming god-like, is central. Early hominid’s evolution into humanity is seen as the direct result of tampering by higher forces, aliens which are so ancient and evolved that they are virtually indistinguishable from gods. Throughout the series, human beings get a taste of this as they merge with the alien intelligence, becoming masters of their own universe and godlike themselves.

In the last book of the series – 3001: Final Odyssey, which Clarke wrote shortly before his death – Clarke describes a future where the Church goes the way of Soviet Communism. Theorizing that in the 21st century a reformist Pope would emerge who would choose to follow a similar policy as Gorbachev (“Glasnost”) and open the Vatican archives, Clarke felt that Christianity would die a natural death and have to be replaced by something else altogether. Thereafter, a sort of universal faith built around an open concept of God (called Deus) was created. By 3001, when the story is taking place, people look back at Christianity as a primitive necessity, but one which became useless by the modern age.

So, in a way, Clarke was like many Futurists and thoroughgoing empiricists, in that he deplored religion for its excesses and abuses, but seemed open to the idea of a cosmic creator at times in his life. And, when pressed, he would say that his personal pursuit for truth and ultimate reality was identical to the search for a search God, even if it went by a different name.

Frank Herbert:
Frank Herbert is known for being the man who taught people how to take science fiction seriously all over again. One of the reasons he was so successful in this regard was because of the way he worked the central role played by religion on human culture and consciousness into every book he ever wrote. Whether it was the Lazarus Effect, the Jesus Incident, or the seminal Dune, which addresses the danger of prophecies and messiahs, Frank clearly believed that the divine was something humanity was not destined to outgrow.

And nowhere was this made more clear than in the Dune saga. In the very first novel, it is established that humanity lives in a galaxy-spanning empire, and that the codes governing technological progress are the result of a “jihad” which took place thousands of years ago. This war was waged against thinking machines and all other forms of machinery that threatened to usurp humanity’s sense of identity and creativity, resulting in the religious proscription “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

Several millennium later, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a quasi-religious matriarchal society, are conspiring to create a messianic figure in the form of the Kwisatz Haderach. The name itself derives from the Hebrew term “Kefitzat Haderech” (literally: “The Way’s Jump”), a Kabbalic term related to teleportation. However, in this case, the name refers to the individual’s absolute prescience, the ability to jump through time in their mind’s eye. In preparation for the arrival of this being, they have been using their missionaries to spread messiah legends all over the known universe, hoping that people will respond to the arrival of their superbeing as if he were a messianic figure.

When the main character, Paul Atreides – the product of Bene Gesserit’s breeding program – arrives on the planet Arrakis, where his family is betrayed and killed, he and his mother become refugees amongst the native Fremen. They are one such people who have been prepped for his arrival, and wonder if he is in fact the one who will set them free. In order to survive, Paul takes on this role and begins to lead the Fremen as a religious leader. All along, he contends with the fear that in so doing, he will be unleashing forces he cannot control, a price which seems too high just to ensure that he and his mother survive and avenge themselves on their betrayers.

However, in the end, he comes to see that this is necessary. His prescience and inner awareness reveal to him that his concepts of morality are short-sighted, failing to take into account the need for renewal through conflict and war. And in the end, this is exactly what happens.By assuming the role of the Kwisatz Haderach, and the Fremen’s Mahdi, he defeats the Emperor and the Harkonnens and becomes the Emperor of the known universe. A series of crusades followers as his followers go out into the universe to subdue all rebellion to his rule and spread their new faith. Arrakis not only becomes the seat of power, but the spiritual capital of the universe, with people coming far and wide to see their new ruler and prophet.

As the series continues, Paul chooses to sacrifice himself in order to put an end to the cult of worship that has come of his actions. He wanders off into the desert, leaving his sister Alia to rule as Regent. As his children come of age, his son, Leto II, realizes the follies of his father and must make a similar choice as he did. Granted, assuming the role of a God is fraught with peril, but in order to truly awaken humanity from its sleep and prepare it for the future, he must go all the way and become a living God. Thus, he merges with the Sandworm, achieving a sort of quasi-immortality and invincibility.

After 3500 of absolute rule, he conspires in a plot to destroy himself and dies, leaving a huge, terrible, but ultimately noble legacy that people spend the next 1500 years combing through. When they come to the point of realizing what Leto II was preparing them for, they come to see the wisdom in his three and half millennia of tyranny. By becoming a living God, by manipulating the universe through his absolute prescience, he was preparing humanity for the day when they would be able to live without Gods. Like the Bene Gesserit, who became his chosen after the fact, he was conspiring to create “mature humanity”, a race of people who could work out their fates moment by moment and not be slaved to prophecies or messiahs.

As you can see, the commentary ran very deep. At once, Herbert seemed to be saying that humanity would never outlive the need for religion, but at the same time, that our survival might someday require us to break our dependency on it. Much like his critique on rational thought, democracy and all other forms of ideology, he seemed to be suggesting that the path to true wisdom and independence lay in cultivating a holistic awareness, one which viewed the universe not through a single lens, but as a multifaceted whole, and which was really nothing more than a projection of ourselves.

For those seeking clarity, that’s about as clear as it gets. As Herbert made very clear through the collection of his works, religion was something that he was very fascinated with, especially the more esoteric and mystical sects – such as Kaballah, Sufism, Zen Buddhism and the like. This was appropriate since he was never a man who gave answers easily, preferring to reflect on the mystery rather than trying to contain it with imperfect thoughts. Leto II said something very similar to this towards the end of God Emperor of Dune; as he lay dying he cautions Duncan and Siona against attempts to dispel the mystery, since all he ever tried to do was increase it. I interpreted this to be a testament of Frank’s own beliefs, which still inspire me to this day!

Gene Roddenberry:
For years, I often found myself wondering what Roddenberry’s take on organized religion, spirituality, and the divine were. Like most things pertaining to Star Trek, he seemed to prefer taking the open and inclusive approach, ruling nothing out, but not endorsing anything too strongly either. Whenever religion entered into the storyline, it seemed to take the form of an alien race who’s social structure was meant to resemble something out of Earth’s past. As always, their was a point to be made, namely how bad things used to be!

Behind the scenes, however, Roddenberry was a little more open about his stance. According to various pieces of biographical info, he considered himself a humanist and agnostic, and wanted to create a show where none of his characters had any religious beliefs. If anything, the people of the future were pure rationalists who viewed religion as something more primitive, even if they didn’t openly say so.

However, this did not prevent the subject of religion from coming up throughout the series. In the original, the crew discovers planets where religious practices are done that resemble something out of Earth’s past. In the episode “Bread and Circuses”, they arrive on a planet that resembles ancient Rome, complete with gladiatorial fights, Pro-Consuls, and a growing religion which worships the “Son”, aka. a Jesus-like figure. This last element is apparently on the rise, and is advocating peace and an end to the cultures violent ways. In “Who Mourns Adonais”, the crew are taken captive by a powerful alien that claims to be Apollo, and who was in fact the true inspiration for the Greek god. After neutralizing him and escaping from the planet, Apollo laments that the universe has outgrown the need for gods.

In the newer series, several similar stories are told. In the season one episode entitled “Justice”, they come Edenic world where the people live a seemingly free and happy existence. However, it is soon revealed that their penal code involves death for the most minor of infractions, one which was handed down by “God”. This being is essentially an alien presence that lives in orbit and watches over the people. When the Enterprise tries to rescue Wesley, who is condemned to die, the being interferes. Picard gains its acquiescence by stating “there can be no justice in absolutes”, and they leave. In a third season episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers”, Picard becomes a deity to the people of a primitive world when the crew saves one of their inhabitants from death. In an effort to avoid tampering with their culture, he lands and convinces him of his mortality, and explains that progress, not divine power, is the basis of their advanced nature.

These are but a few examples, but they do indicate a general trend. Whereas Roddenberry assiduously avoided proselytizing his own beliefs in the series, he was sure to indicate the ill effects religion can have on culture. In just about every instance, it is seen as the source of intolerance, injustice, irrationality, and crimes against humanity and nature. But of course, the various crews of the Enterprise and Starfleet do not interfere where they can help it, for this is seen as something that all species must pass through on the road to realizing their true potential.

George Lucas:
Whereas many singers of space opera and science fiction provided various commentaries on religion in their works, Lucas was somewhat unique in that he worked his directly into the plot. Much like everything else in his stories, no direct lines are established with the world of today, or its institutions. Instead, he chose to create a universe that was entirely fictional and fantastic, with its own beliefs, conflicts, institutions and political entities. But of course, the commentary on today was still evident, after a fashion.

In the Star Wars universe,religion (if it could be called that) revolves around “The Force”. As Obi-Wan described it in the original movie “It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” In Empire, Yoda goes a step farther when he says “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”Sounds rather pantheistic, doesn’t it? The idea that all life emits an essence, and that the fate of all living things is bound together in a sort of interdependency.

What’s more, the way the Force was governed by a Light Side and a Dark Side; here Lucas appeared to be relying on some decidely Judea-Christian elements. Luke’s father, for example, is a picture perfect representation of The Fall, a Faustian man who sold his soul for power and avarice. The way he and the Emperor continually try to turn Luke by dangling its benefits under his nose is further evidence of this. And in the end, the way Darth Vader is redeemed, and how he is willing to sacrifice himself to save his son, calls to mind the crucifixion.

In the prequels, things got even more blatant. Whereas Anakin was seen as a sort of Lucifer in the originals, here he became the prodigal son. Conceived by the “Will of the Force”, i.e. an immaculate conception, he was seen by Qui Gonn as “The Chosen One” who’s arrival was foretold in prophecy. The Jedi Council feared him, which is not dissimilar to how the Pharisees and Sanhedrin reacted to the presence of Jesus (according to Scripture). And of course, the way Anakin’s potential and powers became a source of temptation for him, this too was a call-back to the Lucifer angle from the first films.

All of this was in keeping with Lucas’ fascination with cultural mythos and legends. Many times over, Lucas was rather deliberate in the way he worked cultural references – either visually or allegorically – into his stories. The lightsaber fights and Jedi ethos were derived from medieval Europe and Japan, the architecture and many of the costumes called to mind ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, the setting and gun fights were regularly taken from Old Westerns, and the Imperial getup and rise to power of the Emperor were made to resemble Nazi Germany.

However, Lucas also dispelled much of the mystery and pseudo-religious and spiritual quality of his work by introducing the concept of the “midi-chlorians”. This is something I cannot skip, since it produced a hell of a lot of angst from the fan community and confounded much of what he said in the original films. Whereas the Force was seen as a mystic and ethereal thing in the originals, in the prequels, Lucas sought to explain the nature of it by ascribing it to microscopic bacteria which are present in all living things.

Perhaps he thought it would be cool to explain just how this semi-spiritual power worked, in empirical terms. In that, he failed miserably! Not only did this deprive his franchise of something truly mysterious and mystical, it also did not advance the “science” of the Force one inch. Within this explanation, the Force is still a power which resides in all living things, its just these microscopic bacteria which seem to allow people to interact with it. Like most fans, I see this as something superfluous which we were all better off without!

H.G. Wells:
Prior to men like Herbert and the “Big Three” (Asimov, Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein), Wells was the master of science fiction. Since his time, during which he published a staggering amount of novels, short-stories and essays, his influence and commentaries have had immense influence. And when it came to matters of faith and the divine, Well’s was similarly influential, being one of the first sci-fi writers to espouse a sort of “elemental Christian” belief, or a sort of non-denominational acceptance for religion.

These beliefs he outlined in his non-fiction work entitled God the Invisible King, where he professed a belief in a personal and intimate God that did not draw on any particular belief system. He defined this in more specific terms later in the work,  aligning himself with a “renascent or modern religion … neither atheist nor Buddhist nor Mohammedan nor Christian … [that] he has found growing up in himself”.

When it came to traditional religions, however, Wells was clearly of the belief that they had served their purpose, but were not meant to endure. In The Shape of Things to Come, he envisioned the creation of a global state (similar to Zamyatin’s “One State” and Huxley’s “World State”), where scientific progress was emphasized and all religions suppressed. This he saw as intrinsic to mankind’s progress towards a modern utopia, based on reason and enlightenment and the end of war.

In War of the Worlds, a similar interpretation is made. In this apocalyptic novel, one of the main characters is a clergyman who interprets the invasion of the Martians as divine retribution. However, this only seems to illustrate his mentally instability, and his rantings about “the end of the world” are ultimately what lead to his death at the hands of the aliens. Seen in this light, the clergyman could be interpreted as a symbol of mankind’s primitive past, something which is necessarily culled in the wake of the invasion my a far more advanced force. And, as some are quick to point out, the Martians are ultimately defeated by biology (i.e. microscopic germs) rather than any form of intervention from on high.

Isaac Asimov:
Much like his “Big Three” colleague Clarke, Asimov was a committed rationalist, atheist and humanist. Though he was born to Jewish parents who observed the faith, he did not practice Judaism and did not espouse a particular belief in God. Nevertheless, he continued to identify himself as a Jew throughout his life. In addition, as he would demonstrate throughout his writings, he was not averse to religious convictions in others, and was even willing to write on the subject of religion for the sake of philosophical and historical education.

His writings were indicative of this, particularly in the Foundation and I, Robot series. In the former, Asimov shows how the Foundation scientists use religion in order to achieve a degree of influential amongst the less-advanced kingdoms that border their world, in effect becoming a sort of technological priesthood. This works to their advantage when the regent of Anacreon attempts to invade Terminus and ends up with a full-scale coup on his hands.

In the Robot series, Asimov includes a very interesting chapter entitled “Reason”, in which a robot comes to invent its own religion. Named QT1 (aka. “Cutie”) this robot possesses high-reasoning capabilities and runs a space station that provides power to Earth. It concludes that the stars, space, and the planets don’t really exist, and that the power source of the ship is in fact God and the source of its creation.

Naturally, the humans who arrive on the station attempt to reason with Cutie, but to no avail. It has managed to convert the other robots, and maintains the place in good order as a sort of temple. However, the human engineers conclude that since its beliefs do not conflict with the smooth running of the facility, that they should not attempt to counterman it’s belief system.

What’s more, in a later story entitled “Escape!” Asimov presents readers with a view of the afterlife. After developing a spaceship that incorporates an FTL engine (known as the hyperspatial drive), a crew of humans take it into space and perform a successful jump. For a few seconds, they experience odd and disturbing visions before returning safely home. They realize that the jump causes people to cease exist, effectively dying, which is a violation of the Three Laws, hence why previous AI’s were incapable of completing the drive.

Taken together, these sources would seem to illustrate that Asimov was a man who saw the uses of religion, and was even fascinated by it at times, but did not have much of a use for it. But as long as it was not abused or impinged upon the rights or beliefs of others, he was willing to let sleeping dogs lie.

Philip K. Dick:
Naturally, every crowd of great artists has its oddball, and that’s where PKD comes in! In addition to being a heavy user of drugs and a fan of altered mental states, he also had some rather weird ideas when it came to religion. These were in part the result of a series of religious experiences he underwent which began for him in 1974 while recovering from dental surgery. They were also an expresion of his gnostic beliefs, which held that God is a higher intelligence which the human mind can make contact with, given the right circumstances.

Of Dick’s hallucinations, the first incident apparently occurred when a beautiful Christian woman made a delivery to his door and he was mesmerized by the light reflecting off of her fish pendant, which he claimed imparted wisdom and clairvoyance. Thereafter, Dick began to experience numerous hallucinations, and began to rule out medication as a cause. Initially, they took the form of geometric patterns, but began to include visions of Jesus and ancient Rome as well. Dick documented and discussed these experiences and how they shaped his views on faith in a private journal, which was later published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.

As he stated in his journal, he began to feel that his hallucinations were the result of a greater mind making contact with his own, which he referred to as the “transcendentally rational mind”, “Zebra”, “God” and “VALIS” (vast active living intelligence system). Much of these experiences would provide the inspiration for his VALIS Trilogy, a series that deals with the concept of visions, our notions of God and transcendent beings.

In addition, many of Dick’s hallucinations took on a decidedly Judea-Christian character. For instance, at one point he became convinced that he was living two parallel lives; one as himself, and another as “Thomas” – a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century AD. At another point, Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah. These experiences would lead him to adapt certain Biblical elements into his work, a prime example being a chapter in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which bore a striking resemblance to the a story from the Biblical Book of Acts, which Dick claimed to never have read.

All of this is a testament to the rather profound (and possibly nuts!) mind of PKD and his fascination with all things divine and spiritual. Though not a man of faith in the traditional sense, he was very much a part of the counter-culture in his day and experimented with drugs and alternative religious beliefs quite freely. And while most of his ideas were dismissed as outlandish and the result of drug abuse, there were many (Robert A Heinlein included) who saw past that to the creative and rather gifted artistic soul within. It is therefore considered a tragedy that PKD died in relative obscurity, having never witnessed how much of an impact and influence he would have on science fiction and modern literature.

Ray Bradbury:
Next up, we have the late great Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer for whom all literature was of immense import. This included the Bible, the Tanakh, the Koran, and just about any other religious text ever written by man. What’s more, many of his works contain passages which would seem to indicate that Bradbury held religion in high esteem, and even believed it to be compatible (or at least not mutually exclusive) with science.

For example, in his seminal novel Fahrenheit 451, one of the most precious volumes being protected by the character of Faber, a former English professor, is the Bible itself. When Montag confronts him and begins ripping the pages out of it, Faber tells him that it is one of the last remaining copies in the world that actually contains God’s words, instead of the newer versions which contain product placements.

As the story progresses and World War III finally comes, Montag joins Faber and a community of exiles, all of whom are responsible for “becoming a book” by memorizing it. In this way, they hope to preserve whatever literature they can until such a time as civilization and the art of writing re-emerges. Montag is charged with memorizing the Book of Ecclesiastes, and joins the exiles on their journey.

In the Martian Chronicles, Bradbury is even more clear on his stance vis a vis religion. In the short story “-And the Moon Be Still as Bright”, the Fourth Expedition arrives on Mars to find that the majority of the Martians have died from chickenpox. A disillusioned character named Jeff Spender then spends much time in the alien ruins and comes to praise the Martians for how their culture combined religion and science.

Humanity’s big mistake, according to Spender, was in praising science at the expense of religion, which he seemed to suggest was responsible for modern man’s sense of displacement. Or has Spender put it: “That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.”

In short, Bradbury saw humanity as lost, largely because of it deification of reason at the expense of faith. However, he did not appear to be advocating any particular religion, or even religion over science. When it came right down to it, he seemed to be of the opinion that faith was important to life, an outlet for creativity and inspiration, and needed to be preserved, along with everything else.

Robert A. Heinlein:
As yet another member of the “Big Three”, Heinlein’s own religious view bear a striking resemblance to those of his contemporaries. Much like Clarke and Asimov, he was a committed rationalist and humanist, and varied from outright atheism to merely rejecting the current state of human religion. According to various sources, this began when he first encountered Darwin’s Origin of the Species at the age of 13, which convinced him to eschew his Baptist roots.

These can be summed up in a statement made by Maureen, one of his characters in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, when she said that the purpose of metaphysics was to ask the question why, but not to answer. When one passed beyond the realm of questions and got into answer, they were firmly in religious territory. Naturally, the character of Maureen preferred the former, as the latter led to intolerance, chauvinism, and persecution.

In Stranger In A Strange Land, one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time, plenty of time is dedicated to the main character’s (the Martian Smith) experiences with religion. After becoming disillusioned with humanity’s existing institutions, he decides to create a new faith known as the “Church of All Worlds”. This new faith was based on universal acceptance and blended elements of paganism, revivalism, and psychic training. In short, it was an attempt to predate major religions by reintroducing ancient rites, nature worship, and the recognition of the divine in all things.

What’s more, Stranger’s challenge to just about every contemporary more, which included monogamy, fear of death, money, and conventional morality could only be seen by religious authorities as an indictment of traditional values. In that respect, they were right. Heinlein plotted out the entire novel in the early fifties, but did begin writing it for a full decade. He would later of say of this, “I had been in no hurry to finish it, as that story could not be published commercially until the public mores changed. I could see them changing and it turned out that I had timed it right.”

But just in case his work did not suffice, Heinlein expressed his opinions quite clearly in the book entitled Notebooks of Lazarus Long (named after one of his recurring characters): “History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.” These and other quotes illustrated his issues with religion, which included their irreconcilable nature with reason, their inherent contradictions, and the ludicrous things done in their names.

Summary:
And that’s what the masters had to say on the subject, at least those that I chose to include. As you can plainly see, their opinions ran the gambit from outright condemnation of religion (but not necessarily of faith) to believing that religion had it’s place alongside science as an equally worthy form of expression. And of course, there were those who fell somewhere in the middle, either seeing religion as an ambiguous thing or something that humanity would not outgrow – at least not for the foreseeable future. Strangely, none of them seemed to think that religion trumped science… I wonder why 😉

Worlds of Dune

Hello all and welcome back. Starting today, I thought I’d get into a cheerier aspect of science fiction. Not that I don’t looooove dystopian stuff, but after days and days of romping through endless examples of totalitarian, cyberpunk and just generally dark futures, I thought it might be time for a break. And it just so happened that I had an idea the other day which seemed like the perfect diversion. For those who read my site regularly, you might have noticed I did a long list of conceptual sci-fi posts. Well, today I thought I’d get back into that some.

To break it down, I wanted to do a piece that was dedicated entirely to “Cool Worlds”, an exploration of the various planets, cultures and civilizations science fiction has given us over the years. However, after coming up with just a few candidates, I quickly realized my mistake. There was no way I could possibly list all the best examples in just one post. And if I settled on just a few, then people might start writing in and saying “what about this one? what about that one?”

So rather than do all that, I decided instead to tackle specific franchises, particularly ones that made it into my Galactic Empires post, and address some of the cool worlds that existed within.And what better place to start than with my favorite galactic franchise, one of the most detailed franchises ever to be dreamed up: the venerable Dune!

Anyone who is familiar with Frank Herbert’s six volume series knows that he was pretty damn good at weaving an intricate and finely layered tale. One aspect where this was particularly evident was in his descriptions of the Imperium’s planets. Not only would Frank dedicate a great deal of time and effort to describing what a place was and what significance it held, he would also get into the lesser explored areas of ecology and what impact that had on a planet’s culture. Here are some of the best examples that I could think of, all from his original books:

Arrakis:
The focal point of the Dune universe, and the most important planet in the entire franchise. It was here that the spice was manufactured, where Paul Mua’dib came face to face with his destiny, and “The Tyrant” Leto II was born and ruled for three and a half millenia. It was also eradicated when the Honored Matres attacked the Old Imperium, triggering a full-scale war which would lead humanity along the final steps of the “Golden Path”. In short, it was the backdrop for most of the story, and from a storytelling point of view, a very richly detailed place!

Much of what is known about Arrakis’ culture and ecology comes from the appendixes of the first novel where Herbert wrote about the fictitious exploits of Dr. Pardot Kynes, planetary ecologist to the Imperium. However, a great deal more came through in the course of the story once Paul and Jessica find refuge amongst the Fremen and had to learn their ways and secrets in order to survive. Much of this has to do with the spice, the Sandworms of Arrakis, and how the production of the former depended on the life cycle of the latter. They also came to learn about the Fremen’s plans to alter the planet’s ecology using moisture traps and water caches, as well as the careful introduction of plants and grasses to anchor the dunes.

Basically, Arrakis was a desert planet where moisture was the most precious commodity in existence. A fitting paradox, seeing as how the planet’s desert environment was essential to the production of spice – the most precious resource in the known universe. Two things permeated this environment, both of which kept outsiders away and ensured the security of the Fremen who lived in the deep desert. The first were the Sandworms themselves, the predominant life form on the planet. The second, though no less dangerous, were Arrakis’ famous sandstorms.

According to Dr. Yueh, worms measuring up to 450 meters had been captured and studied, but that ones which were larger still had been seen in the deep desert where no citizen of the Imperium had ever ventured. Living beneath the sand, the sandworms would be attracted to rhythmic vibrations coming from the surface. Knowing this, the Fremen were forced to develop a way of walking arrhythmical when forced to do “dune-crossings”. At other times, when they sought to ride the worms, they would plant “thumpers” to draw their attention, and then mount the worms once they came to the surface.

The worms were also the producers of the spice, which they used to fabricate nest for their young (“sand trout”), which would then leave before the nest underwent a chemical reaction, triggering a “spice blow”. Because of their central role in the life cycle of Arrakis, and the fearsome and awesome nature of the creature itself, the Fremen regarded them as godlike creatures. Shai-Hulud, “the old man of the desert”, was the name given to mature worms while “the Maker” referred to the worms role in the production of spice and the life cycle of the planet. Though Zensunni’s by descent, believing in a God that was transcendent, the Fremen still seemed to attribute some degree of divinity to the worms themselves.

Similarly, sandstorms were common to the Deep Desert, and also the reason why the capital city of Arrakeen was built within a protective outcropping of rock known as the “Shield Wall”. According to the expanded universe, sandstorms on Arrakis were electrically charged and could reach up to 500 km/h, powerful enough to destroy vehicles, equipment and strip anyone unlucky enough to be caught outside in one down to their bones! Due to the havoc they played with navigation and harvesting, all activity beyond the Shield Wall had to be timed to ensure that it happened between storms, otherwise harvesters could wind up buried beneath tons of sand.

As expected, the harsh and unforgiving conditions of this planet did much to shape its inhabitants. The “Fremen” as they are called (play on the word Free Men) were what could be expected from a nomadic desert people who were used to oppression. Recluse, mysterious, pragmatic and extremely tough, they were both feared and loathed by an Imperium that knew little about them and could not control them. However, once Paul and Jessica managed to penetrate the Fremen society by proving their worth to them, they began to see that the Fremen were also capable of extreme hospitality, fierce loyalty, great patience and uncompromisingly dedication.

Over the course of the six original novels, Arrakis was transformed from a desert planet into a lush green world, only to then be transformed back again. This had much to do with the plans of the Fremen, but also to Leto II’s “Golden Path”. In the end, it was realized that the spice-producing worms, and even the Fremen themselves, would not survive the ecological transformation, but once Leto died and the worms were reintroduced to the planet, spice production and desertification once again resumed. Knowing that worms were responsible for removing all traces of poisonous water form the planet, the Sisterhood began using some to conduct their own ecological transformations on Chapterhouse after Arrakis was destroyed.

The Fremen themselves had a saying which pretty much encapsulated their world and themselves: “God created Arrakis to train the faithful”.

Caladan:
Although comparatively little time was spent detailing this planet, Caladan was nevertheless an important planet in the Dune universe. It was the ancestral home of House Atreides, Paul’s birthplace, and would eventually become the sole property of Jessica after Paul became Emperor and moved his seat to Arrakis.

Based on various descriptions from the original novels and expanded universe, Caladan was an ocean planet with few landmasses to speak of.  Because of its relatively mild and agreeable climate, House Atreides was spared the expense of weather control measures. It’s primary exports consisted of biomass, plus the important agricultural produce known as pundi rice. In addition, it also traded in whale fur, gemstones, wine, corals and livestock.

According to Paul’s father, Duke Leto, House Atreides ruled this planet through air and sea power, for obvious reasons. When describing his world to Chani and the Fremen, they were incredulous to know that on some worlds, water was so commonplace that it formed oceans as big as the desert, or that plants could grow so thick that they were impassable.

Clearly, Caladan was meant to serve as a sort of Edenic setting compared to the hostile and rugged landscape of Arrakis. In addition, Paul’s exile into this harsh wilderness after the death of his father could be interpreted as a fall from grace, which he then reconciled when he became the prophet and religious leader of the Fremen and returned in the end to claim the throne. If there’s one thing Dune was known for, its religious allegories!

Chapterhouse:
The home of the vaunted Bene Gesserit training facility in the later books of the series. In the original Dune, this facility was located on Wallach IX and had been for some time. However, five thousands years later in Heretics of Dune, the location had been changed to Chapterhouse. In the following and final novel, Chapterhouse: Dune when the Honored Matres began there assault, it was noted that Wallach had fallen to their advance.

According to the descriptions from Heretics and Chapterhouse, this planet was a green and fertile world. However, with the destruction of Rakis (Arrakis in the later novels) and the death of nearly every sandworm in the known universe, the Bene Gesserit began the process of terraforming it into another desert planet where the worms would be able to thrive, thus giving them control over the only source of spice in the universe.

Throughout the latter books in the series, the Bene Gesserit kept the location of this world a secret to protect it from the Honored Matres. They even went so far as to station a fleet of no-ships around the planet to ensure that no one would be able to locate them with prescient ability.

Geidi Prime:
The homeworld of House Harkonnen. And if the religious metaphor which I alluded to earlier is to be believed – where Caladan is Eden and Arrakis is the real world- then this place would definitely be hell. In fact, judging by the many descriptions made of this planet and its rulers in the original series, the hellish metaphor is so thick you could cut it with a knife!

In the original Dune, we are given descriptions that emphasize the planet’s industrial nature. Hints are also given that the planet was highly volcanic and covered in wastelands. In addition to its many factories, large arenas were also built in most cities, where gladiator duels were held to entertain the populace. The Baron’s nephew, Feyd-Rathau, would often compete as a way of gaining popularity amongst the people and demonstrating his skill.

Also, in the original and subsequent novels, much is made of the Harkonnen’s sense of brutality and perversion. Whereas the Baron delighted in little boys, whom he would often kill in the course of molesting them, the planet’s artwork and decor often emphasized sex and violence.The Baron’s appearance, which is described as being so “grossly and immensely fat” that he requires an anti-gravity device just to get around. In addition, he described himself as “always hungry”.

In Heretics of Dune, when Miles Teg and the ghola of Duncan Idaho are hiding in an abandoned Harkonnen chamber, they notice an old clock where the hands are figured of a man and woman with over-sized genitalia (when the two hands line up, it looks as though a gruesome sex act is occurring!). When describing the Harkonnen’s, Leto II claimed they were “lovers of sensation”, people who were obsessed with pleasures of the body.

Hmmm, factories, volcanoes, gladiator rings and bodily pleasures? Sounds like something right out of Dante’s Inferno! In the course of adapting the novel to the big screen, David Lynch went to town on this, showing the planet to be dark, polluted and filled with terrifyingly decrepit people, many of whom had undergone hideous types of surgery (i.e. heartplugs). In the miniseries version, similar attempts were made to capture the hellish nature of the place. Here, every set was done in the colors red and black and camera angles were always askew, capturing the dark and twisted nature of the Baron and his family.

Ix:
The ninth planet in the star system of Alkalurops, Ix is the home of the technocracy that is responsible for producing the vast majority of the Imperium’s machinery. The name of the planet stems from the misinterpretation of the planet’s designation in Roman numerals.

In the original six novels, we never did get a description of what Ix looks like or what really went on there. For reasons which may have a lot to do with the fact that they are technologists in a universe where technology is morally proscribed, the Ixians appear to be somewhat recluse. However, it was clear that they were responsible for creating the various technologies that were central to the plot.

In God Emperor of Dune, Leto II is found to be recording his thoughts using an illegal device that was manufactured by on Ix. It was also the Ixians who were responsible for breeding Malky, a man who’s purpose was to influence Leto into doubting his own path and purpose. Hwi Noree, who was a sort of polar opposite to Malky, was also created to lure him with her charms. Both individuals were bred inside a “no-chamber”, a special cell that hide what is within from prescient detection. This same technology would later go into created “no-ships” and even larger “no-fields” which could shield entire planets.

Another revelation which came in God Emperor of Dune was the fact that Leto, through his Golden Path, had apparently prevented the Ixians from developing a breed of hunter-seekers which would have completely destroyed humanity. Ultimately, part of his plan was to encourage the development of certain technologies while preventing others. Whereas the hunter-seekers fell into the latter category, machines that could block prescience or replace it (i.e. the machine that could do the job of a navigator) fell into the former.

Kaitain:
In the original Dune novel, Kaitain was the seat of power for the Padishah Emperor and the location of the Imperial Court. It was also the homeworld of House Corrino after events on Selusa Secundus forced them to move. All of the guilds, major houses and interests in the known universe maintained a presence here, including the Spacing Guild, the Bene Gesserit, the Ixians, the Tleilaxu, the Landsraad, CHOAM, etc.

After events on Arrakis forced him to intervene, Emperor Shaddam IV relocated the royal palace to Arrakis so that he could oversee the deployment of his armies and ensure the Baron’s cooperation.

Aside from that, not much is mentioned of Kaitain, except for a description of the Golden Lion throne in the original novel’s appendices. Here, it is described as an opulent throne that had been “carved from a single piece of Hagal quartz — blue-green translucency shot through with streaks of yellow fire.”

Selusa Secundus:
Once the seat of House Corrino and the Royal Court, this planet became a prison world after it was devastated in a nuclear attack. As a result, the planet’s climate is incredibly harsh and inhospitable, making it the perfect world for the condemned of society. Radiation from the attack still permeates the planet’s climate, and mortality rates amongst prisoners are apparently as high as 60 percent.

However, as is quickly made clear in the first novel and throughout the series, Selusa Secundus also serves as the training grounds for the Emperor’s dreaded Sardaukar army. This is done in secret, though most Houses within the Imperium apparently suspect it. In fact, in the first novel, the Emperor apparently became suspicious when Baron Harkonnen remarked to Count Fenrig that he would use Arrakis to conduct a similar experiment with his own armies. This was meant only in jest, but it did speak to suspicions the Emperor had.

One other person who understood this was Paul. After becoming an exile on Arrakis, he began to learn that his father had similar plans with the Fremen. By making an alliance with the Fremen, people who had been toughened by conditions worse than that on Selusa Secundus, his father would eventually be able to raise an army army that could rival the Sardaukar. Convinced that Paul was their messiah, he put this plan into action and was able to defeat the Emperor’s armies outside of Arrakeen.

After seizing control of the Golden Lion Throne, Paul exiled House Corrino to Selusa Secundus where they remained until events in Children of Dune. It was here that Shaddam’s third daughter, Princess Wensicia, began plotting the assassinate Paul’s twin children and place her own son Farad’n on the throne. When Jessica is forced to flee Arrakis with Duncan, they found shelter here and made their deal with Winsicia. In exchange for marriage between Ghanima and Farad’n, she agreed to teach him in the Bene Gesserit ways.

Beyond that, no mention is made of Selusa Secundus. Much like House Corrino, it seemed this planet was destined to fade into obscurity.

Tleilax:
Yet another obscure world to come out of the Dune universe. And much like Ix, very little was said about this planet until late in the series. Nevertheless, it too played a very important role in the Dune universe and a number of key developments and inventions were apparently born here.

The sole planet in the Thalim star system, this world is also the home of the mysterious Bene Tleilax. In addition to being the training ground for “twisted Mentats”, Tleilax is also the home of the elusive axlotl tanks, which are used in the production of gholas. Though most within the Imperium frowned upon these devices, as they did all Tleilaxu inventions, the tanks and gholas in particular were used by just about all factions for the sake of their plotting and machinations.

In Dune Messiah, much is told about the Tleilaxu due to their involvement in a plot to unseat Paul Mua’dib from the Imperial Throne. This included the creation of a Duncan Idaho ghola, which had been programmed to kill Paul once he uttered the key phrase “she’s gone” in reference to his beloved Chani. However, this was soon revealed to be a plot within a plot, where the real intent was to show how the original memories of a ghola could be recovered by forcing them into a situation where their original self would reassert itself in order to fight against operate conditioning.

In God Emperor of Dune, Leto II is shown to be reliant on the Tleilaxu’s axlotl technology because he keeps demanding gholas of Duncan Idaho. For reasons unknown, he insists on having the original Duncan in his court, with his full memory restored. It is later suggested that this was an important part of his breeding program, that Duncan contained a special gene which he needed to bread into his descendents. But whatever his reasons, the Bene Gesserit continued his program and maintained an alliance with the Tleilaxu whereby they would receive gholas of Duncan Idaho so they could try to ascertain his true purpose.

In Heretics of Dune, the sixth incarnation of the Sisterhood’s Duncan Idaho is revealed to be special. Unlike the other incarnations, he has access to the memories of all other Idaho gholas, dating back to the very first who served Pual Mua’dib and all those who served and died at the hands of Leto II. In addition, the Tleilaxu clearly equipped him with the sex techniques of the Honored Matres so that he would be able to turn the tables on them when the time came, resisting their attempts to “imprint him” and imprint himself onto one of them. All of this leads Duncan to the conclusion that he now possesses Kwisatz Haderach-like abilities, which is confirmed in Chapterhouse: Dune when he begins to experience visions of the old man and lady (see below).

Also, in was in Heretics of Dune that readers got their first glimpse of the Tleilaxu homeworld and their society. Prior to this, it was understood that Tleilaxu was master geneticists who had engineered their own version of the Kwisatz Hadderach, but which had apparently committed suicide. It was also shown that they were ruled by a series of “masters”; Master Scytale being the one who participated in the plot in Dune Messiah.

However, what was not revealed was that the Tleilaxu were actually secret Zensunni’s and Sufi’s who maintained strict religious secrecy so as to keep their plans hidden from “powindah” (aka. outsiders). In addition, all masters were clones (not gholas) of their original selves and achieved a sort of immortality this way. This was apparently part of their long-term plan to assert their dominance over the known universe, a plan which was finally hatched in Heretics of Dune and involved the specially-programmed Duncan Idaho ghola.

Also central to the plot of several novels in the original series was the Face Dancer, another invention unique to the Tleilaxu. These were people specially bred to be able to take on the likeness and even the memories of people they were charged with killing and impersonating. Bred to be eunuchs and completely loyal, they were human only in the strictest sense of the word and possessed no identity of their own. However, this changed as the series progressed and it became clear that after millenia of adopting the personas of others, Face Dancers were beginning to develop personalities of their own.

This was apparently the threat the Honored Matres were themselves fleeing and which had forced them back into the universe of the Old Imperium. Throughout Chapterhouse: Dune, Duncan Idaho is haunted by visions of an old man and a woman whom he identifies as free Face Dancers. It is these people who he concludes are responsible for the greater threat they face, and who appear to want to capture him because of his special abilities as well.

Another interesting invention to come out Tleilax was the “slig”, a genetically engineered hybrid which crossed the DNA of a pig with a slug to produce a large, fleshy and slothful creature that is easily harvested for its meat. As was remarked in one of the later books in the series, this animal was considered ugly, even disgusting, due to its multiple mouths and skin that excreted a slimy and noxious residue. However, due to its sweet and terder meat, there were few in the Imperium who did not enjoy having “slig medallions” on their tables.

Final Thoughts:
Before I get into talk of patterns and conclusions, a little disclaimer first. First, there are plenty more worlds in Dune universe that are probably worth mentioning. However, there was no way to include them all without making either breaking this post in two or making it run on forever. Second, I deliberately left out information that did not come from the original six novels. True, there’s plenty more mentioned in the expanded franchise of these and other worlds in the Dune universe, but I wanted to stick to material that Frank himself was known to have written. Anything that comes from the expanded universe is likely to suffer from original though. Funny way of putting I know, but it can be known to dilute or undercut anything the original author themselves established.

Okay! Now that I’ve covered my ass, let me get to what I think about these cool worlds! Well, a few things jumped out at me after I was finished researching this list and gave it a final glance:

1. Frank loved secret societies!: Whether it was the Fremen, the Bene Gesserit, the Bene Tleilax, the Ixians, or the Emperor, the concept of recluse worlds and secrets ran through Frank’s original works like a vein. Clearly, he was a big (and I mean big, big, BIG!) fan of intrigue, secrecy, and societies that were founded on them. This is one of the things that I think made the Dune universe so readable and realistic in tone.

Regardless of their house or faction, it seemed that everybody was looking to get a leg up on someone else and found that the best way to do that was to conduct themselves in secret. Was this a commentary on humanity, the result of living under imperial rule, or the result of the complacency Paul and Leto hoped to rescue humanity from? Who knows, point is, he loved em! I think I smell another post in the wind…

2. Ecology effects people: As already mentioned, Frank paid a great of attention to the link between environments and culture. Whereas the Fremen and their values were clearly the result of their hostile and sparse world, the Atreides had apparently been rendered soft by generations of living on Caladan. House Harkonnen, with all their ugly desires and habits, boasted a world to match. And of course Selusa Secundus and Arrakis both served as the ideal training grounds for elite soldiers because life on both was just so freaking hard!

Well that’s all for now. Stay tuned, I plan to tackle the Star Wars universe next! And more chapters for Data Miners are still on the way…